In a recent National Public Radio report on contemporary family life in America, a somewhat exasperated young father describes parenthood as “always filled with joy, but sometimes not much fun.” Most parents today could probably relate to his words. For being father or mother, with all its wonder and joys, is not easy in any age. Good parenting invariably entails a great deal of giving and self-sacrifice – which as we all know is “sometimes not much fun.”
That father’s offhand comment on NPR seems somehow apropos as we reflect this day on our gospel account of the calling of the disciples – particularly James and John, the sons of Zebedee. “Immediately he called them,” Mark’s gospel tells us of Jesus and these two seemingly inseparable brothers, “and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”
What must Zebedee have thought – or maybe sputtered – as he saw his otherwise perfectly sensible sons all of a sudden get up and leave their nets and their chores? And to do what? Why, to follow a little-known itinerant preacher no less; and without so much as a “Tell Mom we will not be home for supper.” Not much fun in that for Zebedee, one supposes, as the hired men meanwhile stare open-jawed in amazement at this little family drama unfolding before their very eyes.
Apparently parenthood and family life was no simpler 2,000 years ago than it is nowadays. By the way, commercial fishing was – back then and is still today in many places – a family business in which each member of the household has his or her important role. It is fair to say that fishing for a living – a lot of hard work – was not always fun. Perhaps it is the ordeal of it all that has made recent television docudramas about the contemporary lives of commercial fishermen such unexpected late-night favorites.
While a family-run fishing business might not have been the most glamorous profession in ancient Israel nor have put one into the highest echelons of Hebrew society, it was nevertheless a respected profession and a solid means of income and support for one’s family. It was, in fact, more highly regarded – according to some scholars and experts – than the work of a lowly village carpenter and jack-of-all-trades as was apparently Jesus’ own father, and perhaps Jesus himself.
So to follow Jesus – as admirable as that may seem from our advantaged perspective 2,000 years later – also meant for James and John the giving up of a not-insignificant trade or profession. As they say, people will always need to eat. The troubling conclusion also seems almost unavoidable: Following Jesus might well mean leaving parents and family and the security and comfort of a good job or career. By the way, how Zebedee was supposed to manage without the assistance and support of his sons we simply do not know from the gospel account. “Follow me,” indeed.
But “Follow me” is precisely what Jesus at the Sea of Galilee says to that other pair of brothers, Peter and Andrew, also fishermen. His call to James and John must certainly have sounded a similar note. Even now, there are probably few words in all of Christian scripture more demanding than these two: Follow me.
Jesus gives no explanation for his challenge. Nor does he give his followers or recruits a clear business plan of sorts for his own start-up ministry. He makes no promise of success and riches either. His vision statement – if you can call it that from a present-day corporate perspective – is only that his disciples will come to “fish for people.” And can there be much future in that?
The disciples must have thought so.
Because, curiously, they are not portrayed as having agonized over their decision to drop everything and follow our Lord. They did not first go home and sleep on it or discuss it at length with family members, friends or village elders. They did not check their bank accounts or savings. And surely, if they had approached their local parish priest for advice, they would most assuredly have been sent back to Zebedee forthwith.
Still, there is something energizing and exciting in the response or impulse – it hardly seems to have been a decision at all – of these first disciples. Perhaps in leaving hearth and home, they comprehended at once the larger family of humankind to which Jesus was calling them. To “fish for people” is, after all, about community – and family. And, though not always fun, as the disciples were themselves later to discover, it is most definitely about joy – the joy of bringing the Father’s love to others sorely in need of the Good News of the gospel.
Most of us have, no doubt, from time to time dreamed of dropping everything and heading off on some personal journey of discovery – until we sit back and calculate the cost, come down to earth, and get back to work and reality. Few of us today would leave our net, much less our Internet, to follow in the footsteps of James and John, Peter and Andrew – or Jesus himself. Yet our Lord’s challenge to the disciples of so long ago remains there to test us still today – just those two words:
The fact that we know from the perspective of faith just who Jesus is and what he calls us to do seems to make little difference. In some sense, our challenge and task is perhaps even greater than that of those impulsive young followers of Jesus. For most of us are called to follow our Lord at the very same time we are challenged to remain where we are – at the side of family and friends. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, accepting our Lord’s gospel imperative invariably leads us to others, to “fish for people,” even if we never leave home.
What the early disciples must have instinctively known is what we must not forget – that in following Jesus we leave everything but lose nothing. That is “the good news of God” that Jesus and his disciples proclaim with great joy throughout Galilee – and through us across our world today as well. And probably even the disciples’ own father, Zebedee, could find joy in that.